That Ugly Thing: When Art Approaches Crime

/ by Sebastian Makonnen Kjølaas

I’ve seen a dead rabbit exhibited with a bow tie suspended in formaldehyde inside a glass container, being smashed in anger by a gang of drunk animal rights activists. I’ve seen an art student hand out GHB disguised as juice to unknowing visitors inside a wrecked IKEA kitchen at his graduation show. I’ve seen a 24 year-old man sit in a bathtub filled with milk, being breast feed by his biological mother, who had agreed to participate in the performance after getting a phone call from her estranged son.


Personally, all these situations forced me to judge them not only aesthetically, but ethically. The given examples are perhaps a bit extreme, but death, ecstasy and sex are all well-known subjects. A fascination with perversity and taboo is present in the criminal and the artist alike. Where the criminal actually personifies these taboos by acting them out, the artist distills them into a representation. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the two apart. Today, the artist and the criminal are both defined by different institutions. One goes to jail. The other is hanged in the museum. One hanged, the other hung. Both segregated from the rest of society. Both subject to heavy security. Both facing the unavoidable – exposure. If we were to narrowly define art or crime without these institutions, the boundaries seem to fade, the definitions falter. Our easily recognizable categories seem cloudy, created for the benefit of implementing order in a sadly chaotic world. We must evaluate the case on our own.


I draw the line between artistic autonomy and criminal offence in the act of tricking unsuspecting spectators into doing psychedelic drugs without their knowledge. I felt this was an easy ethical choice. However, not everyone agreed. The artist, who was arrested on the opening night, seemed to just want to show the audience something. He wanted to “make them see.”


When it comes to the animal right activists destroying a work of art because they found it repulsive, I’m on the side of the artist, and the right of free speech, even when its expressed through killing an animal and dressing it up as the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. Others, no doubt, would disagree. When it comes to the guy being breastfed by his mother, I’m still speechless. Though more taboo than criminal, it was an ugly thing to watch.


What interest me is this overlapping of ethics and aesthetics. That taste seems to have a moral flavor. I’m not saying that art is fundamentally good or bad, in the same way as it’s not fundamentally beautiful or ugly. I believe that aesthetics is intertwined with ethics in a way that make them inseparable. The one takes the form of the other. Art makes us reevaluate our values. The artists make us see the world in different ways, by molding it. Showing it to us as a composition. Presenting us with a perspective. A way of seeing. And as time goes by, certain forms of art slowly become culture. Molding national identity, creating generalizing opinions, and shaping our ideas about right and wrong. The ability to create value is also the ability to exert power. And power must be represented. Status is an aesthetic creation. Politicians know this, tyrants know this, and criminals know this. They are all obsessed with appearance. It’s the old “show and tell.” Can’t have the one without the other. When Louis XIV of France dressed up as the sun, it wasn't a superficial, decorative supplement, but an expression of the Sun King’s core belief in his own supreme importance. A mirror of his inner life, his beliefs and values. As a personified sun, he had the right to dictate Law, to decide who died and who lived. His beams shone upon all that he saw as beautiful, and let the rest remain in darkness.


Laws are ideas we either believe in, or are forced to live by. Crime is a revolt that sometimes leads to social change - and this is its virtue. Without anyone challenging our idea of right and wrong, there would be no social progress. There would be no change. Take into account that Nelson Mandela was a criminal, as was Gandhi and Jesus. Becoming a criminal may be a complex ethical choice. It can even be a moral obligation. The only way of acting right. The only way of looking good. In short - crime is healthy. Not only when the perpetrator is Gandhi, but in general. Even the most morbid, depraved and atrocious kind of crimes. Because breaking rules give meaning to the rule of law. A rule which is never broken is a rule we really don’t need. Criminality function as a way of imbedding our laws with ethical value, and art is the aesthetic form in which we represent our values. Both crime and art can be absurd, irrational and insane.

Where reason stops, persuasion starts. Aesthetics is how we persuade others to believe. Aesthetics is the how of the ethical what. How something is presented becomes what is actually present. The how becomes the what.


The truth is this: If you want to be an artist in this surreally horrendous, absurdly decadent, and intensely orgasmic world - in this cosmic void where objects burn at ridiculous temperatures - you need to stay cool.

Our quest is always on the verge of merging with that of the Fool.

Sebastian Makonnen Kjølaas

(b. 1985) is the artist and author behind The Institute of Art and Crime (2014). He has been lecturing on art history for several years and is the main coordinator at Prosjektskolen School of Art. He lives and works in Oslo, Norway.